Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are widely used chemicals that prevent or slow the onset and spreading of fire. Unfortunately, many of these compounds pose serious threats for human health and the environment, indicating an urgent need for safe(r) and less persistent alternative flame retardants (AFRs). As previous research identified the nervous system as a sensitive target organ, the neurotoxicity of past and present flame retardants is reviewed. First, an overview of the neurotoxicity of BFRs in humans and experimental animals is provided, and some common in vitro neurotoxic mechanisms of action are discussed. The combined epidemiological and toxicological studies clearly underline the need for replacing BFRs. Many potentially suitable AFRs are already in use, despite the absence of a full profile of their environmental behavior and toxicological properties. To prioritize the suitability of some selected halogenated and non-halogenated organophosphorous flame retardants and inorganic halogen-free flame retardants, the available neurotoxic data of these AFRs are discussed. The suitability of the AFRs is rank-ordered and combined with human exposure data (serum concentrations, breast milk concentrations and house dust concentrations) and physicochemical properties (useful to predict e.g. bioavailability and persistence in the environment) for a first semi-quantitative risk assessment of the AFRs. As can be concluded from the reviewed data, several BFRs and AFRs share some neurotoxic effects and modes of action. Moreover, the available neurotoxicity data indicate that some AFRs may be suitable substitutes for BFRs. However, proper risk assessment is hampered by an overall scarcity of data, particularly regarding environmental persistence, human exposure levels, and the formation of breakdown products and possible metabolites as well as their toxicity. Until these data gaps in environmental behavioral and toxicological profiles are filled, large scale use of these chemicals should be cautioned.
Keywords: Alternative flame retardants; Brominated flame retardants; Halogenated and halogen-free organophosphorous flame retardants; Inorganic halogen-free flame retardants; Neurotoxicity; Risk assessment.